President-elect Barack Obama has highlighted a series of key policy areas that he would like to address in the opening days of his presidency. These policy changes will affect a broad spectrum of industries. This article addresses the positions president-elect Obama has taken during the campaign and likely issues faced by the new Congress when it returns to work in January. What follows is a brief description of Wiley Rein's Public Policy Group's analysis of President-elect Obama's key proposals:
- Energy, Infrastructure and the Environment: We believe the Obama Administration will likely put an increased focus on stimulating the economy through public works programs, such as infrastructure development, and new green jobs and technologies. This stimulus and green jobs initiative will likely supplant efforts to pass climate change legislation in the next 12 to 18 months. The green technologies bill and economic stimulus package will include research grants for alternative fuels; increased R&D and production tax incentives for green technologies; investments in roads and bridges; renewable energy infrastructure; and broadband deployment (as discussed below). This stimulus package probably will resemble a 21st century, scaled-down version of the Works Progress Administration. The Obama Administration probably will have a more active EPA that will consider tougher environmental regulations on companies.
- Taxes and Trade: Expectations are that the Obama Administra-tion's tax policy will represent a significant change to existing tax laws, although some of the current tax credits likely will be extended. Upper-income individuals will pay a higher share of taxes, and corporate tax, shelters will be eliminated. President-elect Obama also favors corporate tax credits for companies that increase domestic employment, along with grants and other incentives to increase worker productivity and innovation. In addition, trade policies will become more focused on enforcement and compliance, eschewing free-trade agreements perceived to hasten the export of American jobs and favoring tax law changes designed to curtail labor outsourcing. President-elect Obama also has expressed support for "fair-trade" agreements with foreign nations that would include labor and environmental elements.
- Labor: President-elect Obama has indicated that his Administration will push several reforms to make it easier for laborers to unionize. He favors adoption of the Employee Free Choice Act, which would reaffirm the "card check" process for unionizing and provide certain bargaining rights to unions during their first negotiations with employers. He also would like to reverse current NLRB policy that prohibits certain classes of professionals, including nurses and construction workers, from unionizing.
- Health Care: Under President-elect Obama's proposed health care plan, the uninsured will be able to buy into a government-run health insurance program, and receive tax credits for their premiums. In order to defray some of the costs of this program, and to prevent corporations from cutting health benefits from employees and forcing the government to foot the bill, the plan will create a new tax on payrolls for "large companies" that do not offer "meaningful coverage or make a meaningful contribution to the cost of quality health coverage for their employees." At this time, the vagaries of this plan could indicate an increase in health insurance costs or payroll taxes for corporations that offer insufficient coverage.
- Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA): President-elect Obama has proposed expanding FMLA to cover businesses with 25 or more employees (current law covers only employers with 50 or more employees). He favors reforming the FMLA leave policies to cover more purposes as well, including allowing workers to take leave for elder-care needs; allowing parents up to 24 hours of leave each year to participate in their children's academic activities; and expanding FMLA to cover leave for employees to address domestic violence. President-elect Obama also has expressed support for paid-leave policies.
- Social Security/Retirement: The Obama Administration is expected to push for new regulations concerning retirement plans offered by employers. Its major proposal concerns mandatory retirement accounts for employees. Employers that do not currently offer a retirement plan will be required to enroll their employees in a direct-deposit IRA account that is comparable to existing direct-deposit payroll systems. Employees may opt out if they choose. He also has called for increased Social Security payments for persons making over $250,000 per year and increased disclosure regarding pension investments.
- Telecom/FCC: Bringing the transition to digital television to a close will be the top priority of the new FCC. The next Commission will be faced with overseeing the completion of the agency's massive consumer education campaign, addressing the technical issues that undoubtedly will continue to arise for individual broadcasters, and dealing with the aftermath of the transition. The possible use of translators or multiple antennas to fill in gaps in service also may continue to be an issue in the next Administration.
The FCC likely will also be looking into additional consumer safeguards in 2009. Several proceedings will be teed up for possible action by the new FCC. In particular, these include Skype's Petition for Rulemaking requesting application of the Commission's Carterfone principle to wireless and Internet access services; the Rural Cellular Association's Petition for Rulemaking regarding exclusive handset arrangements between carriers and manufacturers; Public Knowledge's Petition for Declaratory Ruling on text messaging services; and CTIA's and SunCom's Petitions on early termination fees. The Commission may also gather additional data as part of its annual Competition Report processes, potentially leading to more regulatory activity to protect consumers.
- Broadband Deployment: The Obama campaign already has outlined a plan for the creation of a national broadband deployment strategy. The new FCC will be primarily responsible for implementing this new strategy and, among other things, may require the provision of more information on broadband deployment. In addition, the next FCC may adopt net neutrality regulations that would bar network providers from charging fees to advantage certain Internet content over other content.